The musical was written by Alan Bailey and Connie Ray. Set in North Carolina in the 1930s, the Sanders family performs traditional and bluegrass gospel at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. Cast members not only belt out songs such as “I’ll Fly Away” and “Amazing Grace,” but also play a variety of instruments. “Sanders Family Christmas” and “Mount Pleasant Homecoming” are spinoffs of the original play.
Alan Kilpatrick, Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s associate artistic director, joined the cast in 1999 as the Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe, the head of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. He said when Theatre in the Square closed, Brandt Blocker, The Lyric’s artistic director, decided to take the helm at keeping the tradition going.
“(‘Smoke on the Mountain’) has a long history,” Kilpatrick said. “We have become quite family. It has been a great joy for all of us to get to do this show.”
Aside from entertainment, he said the show impacts local businesses at the Marietta Square and provides an outlet suitable for the entire family. He describes the show as an homage to life in a small, Southern town during the 1930s and 1940s.
“In a way, it reminds me a lot of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’: Small town, eccentric characters, people naive to the ways of the world. It’s really very sweet,” he said. “It’s a very, very funny show and when you find out that it takes place in a Baptist church, it is not at all what you would think.”
Karen Howell has performed in all three productions in the series and debuted in “Smoke On the Mountain” in 1992. She is co-directing this season’s show with Kilpatrick.
Howell said the musical reminds her of people she grew up around in her church in “small-town Alabama.” She describes her character, Vera Sanders, as strict and stern but very loving.
Howell said, “(Vera) can sometimes laugh at herself. It’s a lot of fun to play this character.”
However, when Theatre in the Square closed, Howell said she was unsure about the future of the show. She said, “People around town would ask me, ‘What are you going to do?’ Where are you going to go?’ It would have broken my heart not to be able to do my 20th year with the show.”
Echoing Kilpatrick’s sentiments, Howell said “Smoke on the Mountain” and its spinoffs are important to Marietta.
“I really applaud Brandt for giving us a shot. He thought it was important to retain that tradition,” she said. “I really wasn’t ready to give it up. I’m thrilled to be able to sing one more time.”
Jennifer Akin is another cast member excited and grateful for another chance. She has been performing in the show nearly seven years.
“You don’t keep doing a show over and over for no reason,” Akin said. “These people are like family. It’s like coming home.”
She said some fans make attending the show a tradition, and with the Lyric backing it, a new audience will be introduced to it.
“It will be different to be in that space at The Strand, but audience dynamic is so important to us. When they’re having fun, we’re having fun,” she said.
Her character, June, is described as a non-singer, but Akin said she likes her honesty and openness.
“She is the one that listens,” Akin said. “I like her because she loves her family, and if she could sing, she would.”
For first-time attendees, Akin and Howell said to expect a good time with good music and comedy.
“It not a caricature of North Carolina gospel singers and the preacher, but it is funny,” Howell said. “The pastor has never had instruments like this — guitars and fiddles — in the church. Things don’t go exactly like they planned — that’s where the comedy comes from.”
“Expect to laugh a lot,” Akin said. “There are also very tender, precious moments with the family and audience. Enjoy the music – they sound so wonderful.”
“Smoke on the Mountain” runs July 27 to 29, July 31, and Aug. 1 to 5. Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday shows are at 2 p.m., and Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows are at 8 p.m. Performances will take place at The Strand Theatre at 117 North Park Square. Tickets for the show are not part of The Lyric’s season subscription package and must be purchased separately. For cost and more information, visit www.atlantalyrictheatre.com or call (404) 377-9948.